Monday, July 26, 2010

Six Inches to a Mile

We must learn those new names. We must learn where we live. We must learn to make them our own. We must make them our new home.

(Brian Friel, Translations)

Whanganui. Redirected from Wanganui.


Not all of my regular readers have connections to New Zealand, and I wonder what they would make of the fact that a local Mayor responded to calls by the national geographic board to fix the spelling of his town’s name as a ‘racist decision’. How quickly would they unwrap that one, I wonder? Could Whanganui happen elsewhere?

The answer to the last question is yes, of course. In fact throughout this eighteen-month-long furore I’ve been often reminded that my first encounter with the idea of toponomy as an instrument of colonisation dates back to before my time in New Zealand. I picked up a copy of Brian Friel’s play Translations in Edinburgh in 1992 or 1993, during a holiday. I think I was attracted at first by the brilliant device of having characters that all speak English on stage not understand each other, because in the diegesis most of the English actually stands in for the Gaelic spoken in the 1830s, at the time when the play is set. This culminates in the scene between Maire and Yolland, the Irish villager and the English soldier, each trying in vain to speak the language of the other, whilst resulting perfectly intelligible to the audience. In the end it is Yolland who breaks the barrier with a wooing speech consisting entirely of the recitation of local place names – the names that along with the rest of his detachment of Royal Engineers he had been put in charge of anglicising. I have never seen the play performed, but it’s a scene that has stayed with me.

The result of that survey was a map scaled at six inches to a mile, with the vast majority of the toponyms either anglicised (Dùn Na Gall = Donegal) or translated altogether. It was work carried out by soldiers, as if to highlight that mapping the land means taking ownership of it, and so does naming its features. In her Odyssey of Captain Cook, Christchurch artist Marian Maguire illustrates this point in a New Zealand context in an etching entitled 'The Map of the Coast of New Ithaca'. This is a standard Cook-era map of New Zealand, except Odysseus as coloniser has transplanted onto the coast of the new found land the sites of his Mediterranean adventures (visitors to the Bay of Islands in particular may want to watch out for Scylla). There is a strangeness, an out-of-placeness about this textual information – Taranaki is now Mount Zeus, and so forth – that calls attention to the literally far-fetched origins of so many of our actual geographical names, beginning most obviously with Zealand itself, which is what we’re purportedly making new. What Maguire also does here is to highlight the narrative nature of maps, the fact that they tell stories – stories that those of us who have the requisite knowledge of Māori lore and colonial history can retrace and retell.

Group portrait of six government surveyors, photographed in May 1868 by Wrigglesworth and Binns in Wellington (detail). From Timeframes.

But even when naming consists of writing down designations that were previously only spoken, as in the case of New Zealand places that retained their Māori names, it’s still intrinsically colonial in nature. From here to here will henceforth be known as Manawatu. Taranaki welcomes you; Taranaki farewells you. You are now entering the Waikato. None of these binary demarcations existed in pre-colonial New Zealand. Nor did private property, of course, or the concept of a parcel of land. Writes Gyselle M. Byrnes:
Land surveying was fundamental to the European acquisition of territory and to the creation of new definitions of space and place. The work of colonial land surveyors reflects much that is central to the European history of New Zealand, particularly the transformation and domestication of the natural environment. Although physically located on the margins of the settler society, surveyors occupied a central role in implementing the principles of colonisation on the ground, operating (quite literally) at the ‘cutting edge’ of colonisation. Given this colonising agenda, it is not surprising that [the diary of surveyor Thomas Kingwell Skinner] projects a strong mercantilist vision, where the landscape is seen with the eyes of the future. ‘We have indeed come to a land flowing with milk and honey—a land wherein there is no want’, he noted in his diary on first inspection of the Taranaki hinterland. ‘The valleys are particularly rich,’ he continued, ‘and this is the best land you can find’.

I’ll come back to this mercantile aspect in a minute. First I need to explain Whanganui to my kind foreign readers. It is a town in central region of the North Island of New Zealand, see. And since its origins it was named Wanganui, from the Māori name of the river that flows through it, and this state of affairs continued until the early Nineties, when calls were successfully made to add an aitch to the name of the river to restore its etymological - as opposed to phonological - integrity (for Māori in this area, unlike in the rest of the country, w and wh have identical pronunciations). When local Māori called for the same correction to be applied to the city, the Council put it to a non-binding referendum, in which the name-change was soundly defeated. And when the Geographic Board went ahead and recommended the change to the Government anyway, the local Mayor, who also happens to be a radio talk-show host, called it a racist decision.

All this for the sake a silent aitch, you say? To illustrate the actual import of these matters to outsiders, one should further explain what the Waitangi Tribunal is, and how its righting of colonial wrongs takes the form not only of land restitutions and financial compensation, but also of cultural interventions based on historical and ethnographic research. For instance ‘[o]ne settlement with South Island tribe Ngāi Tahu specified 96 place name alterations,’ explains Te Ara. And with these forms of redress comes the simmering resentment that has made Whanganui something of a flashpoint and a shorthand for this particular aspect of race relations in New Zealand.

And it’s not just Whanganui. The Rimutaka hill, near Wellington, has recently been in the news when it was put forward that it should really be called Remutaka, and that its etymology has nothing to do with the tree known as rimu. Again, the historical lines are clear and it would appear to be a fairly straightforward business, but the local reaction has been heated. Featherston local and former South Wairarapa District councillor John Tenquist, for one, called the proposal ‘ludicrous’ and declared:
What is wrong with the way it is? Once again we are pandering to a minority. We have some European heritage in this country and, rightly or wrongly, it has been Rimutaka for over 150 years, so if it ain't broken, don't fix it.

This is not an untypical rhetorical stance of the post-colonialists, lambasting the PC sensitivities of the minority while at the same time revealing an even greater sensibility to matters such as the inalienable right of their forebears to get Māori names wrong. Meanwhile up Howick’s way, in the redesign of Auckland’s districts in light of the advent of the Super City, it was suggested that – without renaming the suburb itself – the local administrative body could take the historically meaningful indigenous name of Te Irirangi, but that measure too was shot down by means of a virulent local campaign featuring the always unpleasant sight of a triumphant Maurice Williamson, MP. And when Brian Rudman wrote a critical piece on the decision for the The New Zealand Herald, this was one of the responses he got.
Rock (Onehunga)
01:34PM Wednesday, 21 Apr 2010
Let's remove the rascist (sic) hysteria that Brian Edmonds' (sic) loves to create and look at the truth of the matter. Money.

The average house price in what is currently Te Irirangi (Otara/East Tamaki) is about $265,000. The average price of a house in Howick is about $550,000. Why would anyone want to have their property associated with one of the cheapest housing area's (sic) in Auckland?

How's that going to help improve the value of their properties? It seems more of a case of trying to up the average house price in the Otara/East Tamaki ward by associating it with the Eastern Bays ward. Much to the detriment of the Eastern Bays residents who are labelled racists when they object.

This is quite a brilliant gambit, I think you’ll agree: reading property values into place names and the boundaries between them creates a straight, direct connection to the old surveyors, and those imperial maps that allowed to establish and then police private property. In the case of the Irish survey of 1833, the exercise was already presented as a form of colonial redress, as Friel tells us by including in the play the relevant passage of the ordnance:
All former surveys of Ireland originated in the forfeiture and violent transfer of property; the present survey has as its object the relief which can be afforded to the proprietors and occupiers of land from unequal taxation.

Conservatives at most latitudes understand this: that if you seize land illegally you might some day have to give it back, or pay something close to its fair price. It may well be that shared commitment to the defence of property that has allowed the remarkable bi-partisan support to the establishment and continuing operation of the Waitangi Tribunal. But it’s the Tribunal’s other function, to provide the means for ongoing cultural and even semiotic redress, that creates arguably the most friction, and the simmering unease that I have endeavoured to describe; that worries conservatives, who fear the unsettlingly vague, open-ended nature of the process, the lack of a statute on limitations on Pākehā guilt; and it’s that function that should give heart to the rest of us, in that it provides a framework for ongoing cultural and linguistic negotiations, for remappings that seek to mend not just our geography, but also our history.

In Friel’s play, it is Yolland, the English soldier, who voices his doubts to Owen, the eager translator (and businessman): that what they are doing is an eviction of sorts, and that in rectifying and standardising those places names, even the ones that over time have become riddled with confusion, ‘something is being eroded’. The need to have a Māori language week reminds us of the extent of that erosion, and that even when faced with the ongoing emergency of a language in peril, every little gesture counts – even for the sake of a silent aitch.

Henry Claylands: Sketch map of the coast from Whanganui to Manawa pou, 1864. From Timeframes.

Brian Friel. Translations. London: Faber and Faber, 1981.
Giselle M. Byrnes. ‘Texted pasts’—the sources of colonial land surveying. Kōtare 1998, Vol I, Nr. 1.
Marian Maguire. The Odyssey of Captain Cook. Christchurch: Papergraphica, 2005.

I stumbled upon this video of a class of Spanish speaking English learners rehearsing a scene of Translations and it seemed worth including it.
This is a good resource on the historical context of Friel's play.


Con said...

I remember when I lived in Kilbirnie many moons ago the case of the adjacent suburb Hataitai came up. This should properly be known as Whataitai after the taniwha of legend. I remember reading it in the paper and realising I'd never heard of the taniwha story before. If you don't know it, basically the story goes that the harbour was once a lake inhabited by 2 enormous taniwha, Ngake and Whataitai, who were bored out of their skulls and desperate to escape to the open ocean. After aeons of faffing about indecisively, they psyched themselves up and swam around the harbour picking up speed. With a supreme effort Ngake hurled himself across the narrow strip of land into Cook Strait, but Whataitai failed and ended up "beached as" (ended up, in fact, as the ridge now known as Hataitai).

I remember reading the story and thinking how nice it would be to restore the sea monster to its rightful place, but the news article ended, if I recall correctly, with the local community board or retailers association saying it would be a waste of money and why not let sleeping dogs lie. And so it came to pass.

Philip said...

We must lean where we live.

Is this poetry or typographical error? Or is it the latter fortuitously begetting the former - typoetry?

Word Verification: glinses. The repulsive dollops of sheen on a politician's forehead and upper lip as s/he tries to rephrase the party line in what passes for a new and interesting way for the fifth time under the sort of strenuous interrogation that might happen now and again if there were still any such thing as investigative journalism.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Is this poetry or typographical error?

I was trying to do my subliminal part in the important fight against obesity.

This should properly be known as Whataitai after the taniwha of legend.

I had never made the connection between Whatatai and Hataitai. Sounds like the Wikipedia entry for Hataitai could be updated, if nothinbg else, I'll see if I can fish out (heh) the citations.

Unknown said...

Really thought provoking post, thanks Gio.
I think it was in Making Peoples, James Belich - where he writes of No Trespass signs (I googled "making peoples james belich, no trespass signs").
New Zealand has always been burdened with making effect it's name.

Jack said...

I thought the taniwha Whataitai had become what we now call the Miramar peninsula?

Picking up on the military nature of surveying: the Ordnance Survey (an office of the UK government) is the official mapping agency of Great Britain. It was originally created during the Napoleonic wars as a response to the threat of French invasion - so the government would have accurate maps to repel the invaders. I have a great and abiding love for the OS and their maps; but their military origins are uncontested.

I believe that several Barry Crump stories from the 50s include characters posing as surveyors to trick people out of food, whisky, and the like.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I have a great and abiding love for the OS and their maps; but their military origins are uncontested.

The latest post from Cartographies of the Absolute seems topical.

Giovanni Tiso said...

This lovely poetically annotated map of a village in South Yorkshire just came to end via an email correspondent.

Unknown said...

That is good.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of reading property values into placenames....According to Bill Bryson in 'Made in America' (Black Swan, 1994)in the United States towns and cities have had their names changed repeatedly, often with the effect of increasing their property value instantly by as much as 15% (Bryson, pg 132).
The sheer ferocity of the Whanganui debate underlines the ongoing colonial (I don't think I'm comfortable saying post-colonial) issues that are perpetually unresolved in New Zealand (Aotearoa!)Great discussion, thanks.

Iguana Jo said...

Quella dei toponimi è una questione molto interessante. Io vengo da una regione il cui stesso nome, nonostante la parvenza di oggettività geografica, è un'invenzione politica. (vedi qui per qualche informazione in più)
E le discussioni a proposito dei nomi geografici in Sudtirolo sono all'ordine del giorno (l'ultima polemica - che riguarda solo parzialmente la questione - è di un paio di giorni fa).

La storia di un paese è strettamente legata ai suoi nomi, cambiare i nomi non basta a cambiare la storia, però aiuta. Eccome se aiuta…

(oh… io continuo a commentare in italiano, che faccio molta meno fatica. Dimmi tu se è il caso di passare all'inglese)

Giovanni Tiso said...

Un giorno bisognerà anche che parli della Padania, nonostante il magone che mi viene già in anticipo all'idea. E tu intanto continua a commentare in italiano che mi fa solo piacere!

(Interessantissimi i link, di cui ti ringrazio.)

Giovanni Tiso said...

Did I write "came to end" up there? Whops. Meant "to hand". Silly me. I didn't mean it had come to an untimely demise.

Rob said...

Jack: you might be thinking of John A Lee's ( "Shining with the Shiner"
Great stories: "A little to the left, my man!"

maps said...

Interesting post Giovanni, but I'm not sure if I agree with this:

'From here to here will henceforth be known as Manawatu. Taranaki welcomes you; Taranaki farewells you. You are now entering the Waikato. None of these binary demarcations existed in pre-colonial New Zealand.'

What about pou whenua, which marked off rohe, and the concept of aukati, or border? The boundaries may have sometimes been fuzzier and more fluid, but surely there were boundaries between different iwi and regions they occupied?

'Nor did private property [exist], of course, or the concept of a parcel of land.'

Is this entirely true? Surely within many iwi there were understandings that particular hapu and whanau had exlusive rights over particular pieces of land - if not in perpetuity, then at least indefinitely.

When we consider matters like this we are faced with the interesting question of how to define the
mode(s) of production which constituted Maori society, and whether or not to talk about the existence of classes or proto-classes in that society. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts...

On a different but related subject: what do you think of the new generation of topo maps, and are you going to sign the CROSTOPI Manifesto?

Giovanni Tiso said...

The boundaries may have sometimes been fuzzier and more fluid, but surely there were boundaries between different iwi and regions they occupied?

Yes, and you're right too to observe that we can meaningfully talk about a Māori notion of property, and in fact we should, for not doing it would imply that the Western capitalist definition of the same is the only one with any material (and legally enforceable) value; didn't the crisis over the foreshore and seabed stem exactly from a failure, however wilful, to negotiate those historico-semantic differences?

But on the subject of boundaries I think it still must be noted how their cartographic representation radically altered their nature. Before the surveyors did their work, a change of boundary would have to be negotiated between the people involved, discursively (and I'm not saying it would always be an amicable discussion), whereas after the map had been drawn and deposited any such change had to be made on the map before it could be recognised and enforced on the land. Thus the map acquired more truth value, became more real, than the entity it sought to represent.

(Phillip Lionel Barton's study 'Māori cartography and the European encounter', in volume 3 of the History of Cartography book series is an excellent account of how the oral Māori maps worked and of the role they played in the production of the early colonial maps - there are several recorded accounts of these activities which one could use to adapt Friel's play, an idea that has always tickled me.)

Giovanni Tiso said...

On a different but related subject: what do you think of the new generation of topo maps, and are you going to sign the CROSTOPI Manifesto?

I remember that essay well, I've been wanting to formulate a blog response for some time. Still processing, at my usually glacial pace. In the meantime, you've motivated to send the link to the Cartographies of the Absolute guys.